Freedom from Sin
It is not uncommon for a new believer, after the initial euphoria of conversion, to become distressed at the relentless tendency to evil he finds within himself. He soon discovers that the blood of Christ does not cleanse his nature, and that the Holy Spirit does not sanctify it. Resolutions to become different result only in disappointment, and all his efforts to be holy end with repeated failure. He reads about something called “freedom from sin” (Rom. 6: 18, 22), but knows he experiences quite the opposite. Sadly, this turmoil of soul is not restricted to new converts, for many conceal their struggles for years after first believing in Christ, embarrassed to admit their inability to lead a ‘victorious’ life.
Much of the blame for this miserable situation can be traced back to a faulty Gospel presentation in which man’s total depravity was unmentioned. In many preachings it is taken for granted that man has a natural inclination and ability to come to God about his sins, and it is no surprise that the new converts assume that there is also something in them naturally that can be worked on in order to bear spiritual fruit. They are like the inexperienced gardener who once trained a rose tree over a porch. The leaves of the plant were lush, the growth was strong, but not a flower was to be seen. ‘Why is this?’ inquired the owner of the property to an expert gardener. Taking out his secateurs, the expert levelled the rampant growth to the ground. ‘What have you done?’ cried the owner. ‘Don't you see, sir’ was the reply, ‘your gardener has been cultivating the wrong shoot’ and, at the same time, the expert pointed out the grafted rose, which had barely struggled above the ground, and which the wild shoot had completely overwhelmed. Not all the cultivation or training in the world could have made that wrong shoot become a beautiful and flowering tree, and neither will the efforts of a whole life succeed in making our natural self like Christ.
In Christ Jesus
Every believer knows that “Christ has died for us” (Rom. 5: 8) and that “where sin abounded grace has overabounded” (v20). Sadly, some with a knowledge of the terms of the Gospel would abuse this overabounding nature of the blessing to excuse a life of sin, and the apostle Paul addresses this attitude in Romans 6: “What then shall we say? Should we continue in sin that grace may abound? Far be the thought. We who have died to sin, how shall we still live in it?” (vs. 1, 2, my emphasis). Now most genuine Christians are content to say that they ought to be dead to sin, but wince as they look at the record of their own experience. However, the apostle’s argument against continuing in sin supposes that Christians as a class be dead to sin (rather than just some of special attainment) for if we are dead to sin then it is clearly not possible to live in it. Thus, the apostle is not speaking of our having died to sin as an experience but rather as a position which being “in Christ Jesus” (v11, 23; Rom. 8: 1, 2) sets us. All believers accept that Christ has died, but if we are in Him, then we have died as well. Removing any doubt as to this, Paul states the fact explicitly: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Rom. 6: 8, my emphasis). When did Christ die? Two thousand years ago, proving that our death with Him cannot be a matter of experience.
Baptism is a witness of our death with Christ (“identified with [him] in the likeness of his death—Rom. 6: 5), hence, “We have been buried therefore with him by baptism unto death, in order that, even as Christ has been raised up from among [the] dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life” (v4). Note the language, for it is “unto Christ Jesus”, “unto his death” (v3) and “unto death” (v4)—that is, in being baptised I acknowledge that the penalty of death that Christ came under as bearing my judgment was rightly my penalty for “the wages of sin [is] death” (v23). Now a person might die in many ways, but Christ was crucified. His was therefore no ordinary death, but a judicial act (criminals were crucified), and that judicial act not only had consequences for the Lord Himself but also for those that believe on Him. We understand this very well in relation to sins, but Christ was also “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21), when “God, having sent his own Son, in likeness of flesh of sin, and for sin … condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8: 3). Judgment fell on the Lord, not only because of what we had done, but because of what we are—not only because of sins, but of sin. The apostle can therefore say that “our old man”—the man whose sinful ways characterises the whole of our fallen race—“has been crucified with [him], that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin” (Rom. 6: 6). Crucifixion is condemnation without hope of reprieve. Thus, the cross was God’s judgment upon fallen man, with whom each one of us had his place as being of Adam’s race (see Rom. 5: 12-20) and by which “the many have been constituted sinners” (v19).
Man’s nature, ruined and alienated from God, is incapable of pleasing Him, and, because it is nature, cannot be altered for “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3: 6). When Christ died, our sinful nature—that production line of sins—was also judicially associated with Him. God forgives sins, but He condemns sin. The death of Christ is God’s judgment of sin, and, in His sight, its judicial end (that is, it still exists, but God has judged it). This then is what God says about the death of Christ and what we are by nature, and the path of faith is to believe what God has said, and to view ourselves from His standpoint. He views us as in the dead and risen Christ, and therefore, we are to “reckon” ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6: 11). On what basis is the reckoning to be made? That Christ “has died to sin once for all, but in that he lives, he lives to God” (v10). Did He die to sin? Yes, at Calvary. Then we are dead to sin, and so we reckon it. Does He now live to God? Yes, as risen, and glorified. Then we now live to God, and so we reckon it. Does this mean that there is no sin or flesh in us, or that the old man has been taken out of us? Not at all, for if our fallen nature were gone, then we should not have to reckon ourselves as dead to sin. However, our reckoning is not mere make-believe. It is not that we try to reckon ourselves to be what we are not, for ‘In Christ Jesus’ we are dead to sin, and alive to God, and faith lays hold of those unchanging facts. “Knowing” (v6—ginwskw, objective knowledge) our old man crucified is not a feeling or a consciousness of death, but a fact objectively known to faith. Just as I know my sins are gone, not on the basis of feeling, but because God says so, so I know that God views me in the dead and risen Man, because He says so.
Many have been misled by the faulty translation which says, “that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom. 6: 6, AV—my emphasis in bold), as if the old nature is completely eradicated. The better word is annulled, meaning although the law (or unvarying principle) of sin is still present in the members of our mortal body, it has been rendered inoperative as a controlling power by the death of Christ. An unbeliever is a slave of sin, but that tyrant’s power is at an end when the subject over which he domineers is dead. As the apostle says, “For he that has died is justified from sin” (v7)—you may as well charge a corpse as charge the Christian as being under sin. The Greek shows that there is no going back on this, for “he that has died” (apoqanwn—the completed act) “is justified (dedikaiwtai—the subsisting effect of the past action) “from sin” (v7). As a result, instead of yielding our “members instruments of unrighteousness to sin” as bondmen of sin, we are now to “yield yourselves to God as alive from among [the] dead, and your members instruments of righteousness to God” (v 13, my emphasis). The tenses are important here: “neither yield your members instruments of unrighteousness to sin” means it is at no time to be done, while “yield yourselves to God” (v13) and “yield your members” (v19) are what we are to have done, as a once accomplished act. Thus, there is to be a distinct point in our lives when faith lays hold of what God has said about our new position in Christ, and we act accordingly. As believers, we “were bondmen to sin” (v17), but “now, having got” our “freedom from sin” (its dominion being broken by death), and having “become bondmen to God”, we have “fruit unto holiness, and the end eternal life” (v22). The idea that grace leads to laxity about sin is false: grace puts us in a new position and under a new master, and as “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v11), we “have become bondmen to righteousness” (v18).
What the Law Cannot Do
Now there is a difference between title to be free, and the ability to make good the title practically. Every Christian is ‘in Christ’—the dead and risen Christ—and is thus no longer under sin’s bondage. An individual may not, however, realise that he has been set free. And if he does not realise he is free, then he will not be able to make good his title to freedom. Instead, he will seek through his own efforts to bring himself into conformity to the will of God. This unhappy situation is described for us in Rom. 7: 7-25, where the tormented individual seeks by law to regulate himself, until finally he cries out in despair “O wretched man that I [am]! who shall deliver me out of this body of death?” (v24).
There are two extremes to be avoided in interpreting Romans 7. The first is that it is a description of a spiritual man in as blessed a condition as he ever can be on earth, thereby equating spiritual turmoil with spiritual advancement. Since the apostle says ‘I’ repeatedly, it is inferred that he means himself personally in his current spiritual state. This is not only unwarranted but impossible, for he goes on to say in the same continuous argument that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8: 2). The speaker could not be spiritually both a slave “sold under sin” (Rom. 7: 14) and made free at the same time.
The second error is to consider the soul in distress as unconverted because in the progress of its exercises it says, “I am fleshly” (Rom. 7: 14), supposing that “fleshly” means one dead in trespasses and sins. This is to confuse “fleshly” with “natural” (1 Cor. 2: 14)—which is clearly wrong, since the Corinthians were “fleshly” (1 Cor. 3: 1) but also genuine believers. No believer is ‘natural’ but not every believer is a spiritual person. In Galatians 6: 1, for example, Paul instructs those “who are spiritual” to restore those overtaken by faults—plainly intimating that certain believers were more fitted than others for the delicate work of restoration.
It is not that the man in Romans 7 is without exercise of soul (quite the contrary), but he has not yet learned to abandon himself and rest in Christ, and so he is fleshly. As already noted, vs. 7-25 describe how he is fixated with self, for “I”, and “me” continually reoccur. The reason for this self-occupation is evident: the man is desperately trying, through his own efforts, to control the sinful nature he finds within in a vain attempt to produce that spiritually fruitful life he knows that God expects. Practically, he is under law—trying through regulation to channel himself into conformity to Christ. He does not yet understand that not only are believers justified by faith, but that the daily life of the Christian must be that of faith as well, for “The just shall live on the principle of faith” (Gal. 3: 11, my emphasis). Faith, of course, lays hold on something outside of myself.
The man in Romans 7 is pursuing a wrong course of action, for the Christian does not live by law, for just as death frees a woman from the law of her husband, so Christians have been made “dead to the law by the body of Christ … in order that we might bear fruit to God” (Rom. 7: 4). As with being “dead to sin” (Rom. 6: 11), this is not a matter of experience, for the believer is dead to law whether he knows it or not, and the fact is true of all Christians. The believer is “clear from the law” (Rom. 7: 6) because death (as evidenced by “the body of the Christ”—v4) has taken place, and he is identified with Christ in that death. If death overtakes a person, the law’s dominion over him necessarily terminates, seeing he is no longer living in the sphere in which it held sway. The law is not itself dead, but the believer has been made dead to it. How futile then to seek to bear fruit for God by law-keeping!
Here then is a man who has made himself miserable by the thing he thought would bring him success. Did the law make him better? No, quite the contrary. Law makes men feel worse than ever, for “I had not known sin, unless by law” (Rom. 7: 7). It does not cure self at all and was never intended by God that it should. “[Is] the law sin” (v7) then? No, for the law is “spiritual” (v14). The point is that we are sin. The tool is good, but the wood is rotten. Thus “without law [sin] was dead. But I was alive without law once” (vs. 8, 9). However, the moment law was applied, the man becomes sensible to his true condition: “but the commandment having come, sin revived, but I died” (v9). It stirred up the evil of his heart. Not that it made his heart worse, but it made him feel his badness. Thus, if the law tells me not to covet, then immediately I am overcome by longing. Sin exists, the nature is there, but the desires of sin are brought into action by the law bidding them to be silent.
How painful are the symptoms of the sinful condition that law discovers: “For that which I do, I do not own: for not what I will, this I do; but what I hate, this I practise” (Rom. 7: 15). And yet, at the same time, the agony has not been in vain, because the man can see that there is a difference between “I” and “the sin that dwells in me” (v17), and has rightly concluded from his experience (oida—conscious knowledge) that “in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell: for to will is there with me, but to do right [I find] not” (v18). He has the will but no power, “for I do not practise the good that I will; but the evil I do not will, that I do” (v19). From this, he puts together his earlier findings in a more concrete form, deducing that “if what I do not will, this I practise, [it is] no longer I [that] do it, but the sin that dwells in me” (v20). Verses 21-23 further show how the misery is brought to a crisis, and the growing sense of differentiation between his true self and the evil within. This knowledge, of itself, provides no relief, however, and it is only when the man turns away from looking at self and exclaims “O wretched man that I [am]! who shall deliver me out of this body of death?” (v24, my emphasis) that he finds a deliverer. He cannot deliver himself, but discovers, at his lowest ebb, that Christ is there as the deliverer: “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v25). But exactly how is the man delivered?—for to say that Christ is the deliverer does not explain the deliverance. It is a mistake to think that the latter part of v25 describes the delivered state, for the man distinguishes himself from what he does, but is still in bondage: “So then I myself with the mind serve God’s law; but with the flesh sin’s law”. That statement is merely a description of the situation to which the deliverance is applied, in which there are two laws “warring in opposition” (v23)—the word law here simply meaning a principle acting in a uniform way, the law of a renewed mind seeking good, and the law of sin seeking evil. To understand how the man is delivered, we must go on to the introduction of “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 2).
Deliverance comes in identification with Christ, for it is evident that when a soul is able to identify himself in a full, practical way with the Christ who is before God for Him, then he is out of the condition which made him cry out in despair. Christ is not in bondage, there is in Him no body of sin—indeed, no sin at all, much less a law of it. This is what gives such force to the apostle’s proclamation that “[There is] then now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1, my emphasis). If you add a qualifying clause here (as in the AV—“who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit”) then all is plunged into uncertainty and made to depend on how I walk. There is no such qualifying clause in the verse. Place in Christ and walk in the Spirit are two distinct things. Certainly, there is a walk fitting for those placed in the new position, but the first thing I need to know is that I am placed by the grace of God where no condemnation can reach me. I am in a new position (in Christ Jesus) where condemnation is not. What is the ground of it? “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and of death” (v2). Mark the precision of the language—it the law of the Spirit of life, meaning a principle that is fixed. Again, it is the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, for we reckon ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6: 11) in accord with the place where He now is. Let others boast in the law of Moses, the apostle says, but this is the law for me as a Christian! “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, having sent his own Son, in likeness of flesh of sin, and for sin, has condemned sin in the flesh” (v3). As identified with a dead and risen Christ I am set free from the law of sin and of death forever.
Once the believer’s place as ‘in Christ Jesus’ is a settled fact, then the apostle can address the believer’s walk, and how that “the righteous requirement of the law should be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to flesh but according to Spirit” (Rom. 8: 4). Not by law-keeping note but walking according to Spirit. “According to Spirit” is technically a state rather than the Spirit personally, but clearly it is dependent on God’s Spirit dwelling in us. As Christians, we are in a new condition for “ye are not in flesh but in Spirit, if indeed God’s Spirit dwell in you” (v9), in contrast to the time “when we were in the flesh” (Rom. 7: 5, my emphasis). The Holy Spirit in us is the divine acknowledgment of our being ‘in Christ Jesus’, and if we have the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8: 9, my emphasis), then the result will be that not only are we ‘in Christ Jesus’ but “Christ” will “be in you” (v10), and we shall walk here as he walked.
The essence of this truth worked out practically is found in the words of the apostle Paul in Galatians 2: 20: “I am crucified with Christ, and no longer live, I, but Christ lives in me; but [in] that I now live in flesh, I live by faith, the [faith] of the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me”. Now it is our nature to do certain things—we commit sin because our nature is sinful, and anyone who has tried to be holy and has learned how impossible it is to keep evil out of his heart, will know something of the meaning of ‘I’. He will understand what self is by the experience of himself. But there is another way of learning ‘I’ and that is by looking to Christ upon the cross, suffering there in my place. Many accept in a general way the truth of Christ being their substitute without being clear that they were really in God’s sight with Christ in the place that He took. Paul could say, not only that Christ was crucified on his behalf, but that he was “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2: 20, my emphasis). God has not only taken our sins and laid them upon the sin-bearer, but he has crucified our old man with Christ and therefore in His sight the ‘I’ of the believer is judged and dead.
Nor is that all, for the apostle also goes on to speak of a new life: “but Christ lives in me; but [in] that I now live in flesh, I live by faith, the [faith] of the Son of God” (Gal. 2: 20). Thus, God presents us with self definitely dead in His sight, and Christ living in us. But what is it that lives within the believer? Does the new life enter into our old, fallen nature and Christianise it? Does ‘I’ reappear with Christ helping it? Not at all, for ‘I’ no longer lives—the ‘I’ of my fallen nature, my own self—for ‘I’ is crucified with Christ. What does live in me is Christ—"but Christ lives in me” (v20)—and all the holy desires, the risings Godward, the peace and gladness in the divine presence are the expression of Christ in me not ‘I’.
Paul was not living by experiences, or by feelings, or by keeping the law, but on another principle together: “but [in] that I now live in flesh, I live by faith” (v20, my emphasis). Where was that faith placed? In Christ, for it was “the [faith] of the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me” (v20). Paul’s faith connected his soul with Christ, and this affected every detail of his life below. With the Son of God as an object for the soul, not only in all His glory, but as the One suffered for me, then self is put out of sight, and the walk expresses the absent Christ in this present evil world. That is why the apostle can later say “Walk in [the] Spirit, and ye shall no way fulfil flesh’s lust” (Gal. 5: 16, my emphasis). What does walk in the Spirit mean? Simply that the eye is fixed on Christ. It is occupation with Him by the Spirit.
After receiving the forgiveness of sins, so many try to make themselves holy and righteous in their walk, and thus labour to improve the unimprovable. Freedom from the power of sin is the objective, but occupation with self is the result and despair the outcome. Is this Christianity? Not at all. The Gospel is far, far better than that, for not only has “Christ … died for us” (Rom. 5: 8), but “we have died with Christ” (Rom. 6: 8), and as identified with the dead and risen Christ are beyond all condemnation. We are “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1), and putting ourselves where God has put us, is the only path to a life that is pleasing to God in this world.